Recruiting people with diverse genetic backgrounds is essential to ensure safe and effective vaccines for all of us. New vaccines and drugs need to be studied on a variety of people, and extra effort has been made to recruit Black, Hispanic and Native American volunteers for COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Attempts at securing genetic diversity among volunteers for drug and vaccine trials is nothing new. The Food and Drug Administration has long pushed pharmaceutical companies to maximize diversity because some drugs and vaccines work differently depending on race. The best-known example is some high blood pressure medications work well in many races but don’t perform well in Black patients.
Although not as dramatic as with medications, differences among races have also been found for vaccines. Studies with several vaccines have found that as a group, Blacks tend to have stronger antibody responses. On the other hand, Native American children tend to have significantly poorer antibody responses when vaccinated against certain bacteria compared to others.
Interestingly, Native American children have a heightened need for effective vaccines against these bacteria because they’re more prone to severe illness with these bacteria. Another example of differences in immune responses is that narcolepsy, a disorder with excessive daytime drowsiness, was a very rare side effect in teens of Scandinavian descent vaccinated with a particular European flu vaccine.
Black and Hispanic Americans have been hit disproportionately by SARS-CoV-2. These groups are two to three times more likely to become infected than others, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it follows that Black and Hispanic adults make up a disproportionate number of the hospitalizations and deaths.
SARS-CoV-2 infects entire households, so children haven’t been spared. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be hospitalized than other children with SARS-CoV-2. They’re also more likely to suffer from Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome because of the infection, which is a rare, life-threatening condition causing inflammation of body parts such as the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, eyes and lungs. Of the U.S. childhood Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome cases, Hispanic children account for 41 percent and Black children for 34 percent, while only 13 percent of cases have been in white children.
Why does this matter? If a vaccine is licensed, it will be extremely important for Blacks and Hispanics to be vaccinated to reduce their chances of hospitalization and death. The only way to know the vaccine is safe and effective in Blacks and Hispanics is to test the vaccine candidates in these groups. Testing should be reassuring and breed confidence in the vaccine. Confidence should lead to higher vaccination rates.
Safe and effective vaccines are necessary to beat this pandemic. Vaccines can only work if people are willing to get them. Participation in vaccine trials by people of diverse genetic background is a necessity. Everyone should consider volunteering in a vaccine clinical trial. It’s a way to help your community and all of us.
For more information on vaccine trials, email SIVSCTP@utmb.edu.